Friday, 26 March 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)

Daniel Kaluuya excels as the betrayed Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neal), Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton), Jesse Plemons (Agent Roy Mitchell), Dominque Fishback (Deborah Johnson), Ashton Saunders (Jimmy Palmer), Algee Smith (Jake Winters), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Bobby Rush), Lil Rel Howery (Judy Harmon), Martin Sheen (J. Edgar Hoover), Amari Cheatom (Rod Collins), Jermaine Fowler (Mark Clark)

In the 1960s, America was in violent turmoil. Simmering racial tensions were exploding, as a younger, politically engaged generation refused to accept the status quo of the past. Facing them was a reactionary, institutionally racist law and order system, determined to take any steps necessary to stop them. Violence was inevitable and the anger and resentments of that time still carry a powerful legacy today. It’s these emotions that Judas and the Black Messiah engages with. Impassioned and ambitious film-making, it often tries to do too much but still leaves a powerful impression.

In Chicago in 1968, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a car thief and conman, who uses a faked FBI badge to steal cars. Arrested (and beaten), he is given a choice by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – serve time for his offences or turn informant for the FBI. O’Neal is ordered to join the Black Panther Party – and to get as close as he can to the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is radical, but also a visionary leader who is attempting to build a “rainbow coalition” that will unite black, Puerto Rican and white working classes to campaign on a wide range of social issues, from race to healthcare and education: a vision the FBI sees as a nightmare. O’Neal’s information is used to help frame Hampton, as events build inexorably towards his permanent removal.

Judas and the Black Messiah is dynamic and electric film-making. Shaka King’s film hums with righteous fury at the hypocrisy, racism and violence of the law enforcement agencies towards the Chicago black community (effectively the police are an occupying force, perpetrating violence and injustice). While not shying away from the violent response from many of the Black Panthers – including showing one white police officer executed while begging for his life – it paints an unsparing picture of the racism and cruelty of the Chicago police. Innocent black people are bludgeoned and abused. Those in the Black Panthers are framed for crimes, brutalised in prison and murdered in police custody. The outrage and fury of the film is both justified and affecting.

Simultaneously there is a powerful sense of grief at the loss of a golden opportunity – and the inspiration of a visionary leader, who could have grown to become a key figure in American history. King’s film explores the all-too-short life of Hampton before his murder. It delicately paints his charisma but also carefully establishes his vision. His recognition that social, educational and medical improvements are at least as important to ordinary black people as political rights. His attempt to build a coalition of the downtrodden, white and black. His status as the only man who could unite this coalition. His loss an incalculable tragedy for his cause and also for America.

This powerful picture is further framed by Kaluuya’s marvellous performance as Hampton. Kaluuya perfectly captures the charisma and electricity of Hampton’s public speaking, his ability to marshal words and move crowds. With a bulked-up physicality and head-cocking defiance, he wonderfully conveys Hampton’s ability to persuade and inspire, his lack of fear and passion to see justice done. But Kaluuya also makes him wonderfully human. In intimate moments with his girlfriend Deborah (very well played by Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya makes Hampton gentle, shy, even a little nervous – giving him a very real emotional hinterland that sits naturally alongside (and contrasts with) his activist public persona. This is a stunningly good performance.

It also, perhaps, unbalances the film slightly. King’s film is ambitious – but it is attempting to do too much within its two-hour runtime. This is a film that wants to explore the corruption of the law forces, the terrible plight of black Americans, the life of Fred Hampton and the story of his betrayer Bill O’Neal. It’s this final story that actually ends up feeling the least defined – and least engaging – of the film’s plot threads (unfortunate as it’s the one that gives the film its title).

None of this is the fault of Lakeith Stanfield, who gives a marvellous performance of weakness, fear, self-preservation and regretful self-loathing as O’Neal. But his relationship with Hampton never feels close or personal enough. In fact, the two of them feel very distanced from each other. The sense of the personal in the betrayal is lost. The idea of O’Neal struggling between loyalty to Hampton and his FBI handler Mitchell (who encourages O’Neal to see him as a sort of surrogate father) is weak, because we never get a real sense of a very personal link between O’Neal and Hampton, or a real sense that O’Neal is deeply conflicted about his betrayal. (Indeed, the film is reduced to explicitly telling us that O’Neal is struggling between betraying the Black Panthers and a true belief in their cause, which feels like a failure of narrative.)

Fundamentally, you could split the film into two movies. One which focuses on Hampton and in which O’Neal is little more than an extra. And another that zeroes in on O’Neal’s struggle with the FBI and fears of being caught, in which Hampton is a distant, inspirational figure. What King’s film fails to do is effectively is bring these two characters together properly. The personal nature of the relationship (and the betrayal) is lost. This isn’t Jesus betrayed by one of his disciples – more like Jesus being cashed in by someone at the temple. It’s a loss to the film.

It feels at times as if O’Neal was the original “hook” but that King became more interested – perhaps rightly – in Hampton and the tensions in Chicago (and America more widely) at the time. Similarly, the film is fascinated by the corruption of the FBI – Martin Sheen makes a chilling, latex covered, appearance as Hoover – and by questions over how far Mitchell (Plemons, decent bur fatally compromised), a relative liberal, is willing to go. In both plot lines, O’Neal is an entry point but becomes less and less the focus. It partly explains perhaps why Stanfield – clearly the “lead” – ended up joining Kaluuya in the supporting actor category at the Oscars. He may well be the lead but his story is the least compelling of the several threads here.

Judas and the Black Messiah is still hugely effective in many places. Its main weakness is in trying to juggle these various plot threads, and not always succeeding in bringing them together as well as it should. Because the O’Neal plot line needs to take up a good share of the run time – but is the thread the film seems least interested in – it does mean some of these scenes drag more than they should, making the film at times seem longer than it should. You can’t help but a feel a film that focused on Hampton alone would have been stronger. King’s film still makes powerful points – but its ideas are sometimes blunted and crowded out by its attempt to cover so much. Impassioned and ambitious, it doesn’t always completely succeed.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

The White Tiger (2020)

Adarsh Gourav is a willing servant (or is he?) in The White Tiger

Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Adarsh Gourav (Balram Halwai), Priyanka Chopra Jones (Pinky), Rajkummar Rao (Ashok), Mahesh Manjreker (The Stork), Vijay Maurya (Mukesh “The Mongoose”), Kamlesh Gill (Granny), Swaroop Sampat (The Great Socialist)

“India is two countries in one: an India of light, and an India of Darkness”. It’s an idea that’s at the heart of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-prize winning novel, adapted here as a dynamic (if slightly overlong) film by Ramin Bahrani. Those two India’s are rooted in the country’s deeply ingrained class differences, the new caste system being simple: the haves and the have nots.

Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) is very much one of the have nots. A poor young man, who missed out on his chance of a scholarship because his family needed the income he could bring them from breaking up coal. Balram sees his way out through becoming a driver for the son of the local landlord, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-Indian wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jones). With the story being recounted by an older Balram, now a successful businessman, we know he finds a way to improve his life. But at what cost? And how many lives have been sacrificed to get him there?

Bahrani’s adaptation is a sharp, cinematic, electric piece of film-making, that makes superb use of montage and dynamic camerawork, particularly in its scene setting opening acts. Bahrani also engages brilliantly with the central themes of the novel, the all-pervading corruption of modern India (financial and spiritual) and the gulf in class and mindset that exists between the rich and poor. The wealthy upper classes see themselves as nothing less than masters of the rest of the population, who they hire and fire at will and frequently mistreat. Meanwhile, Balram argues, many of the poor cannot escape the mindset of servitude (the “chicken coop” as he puts it), unable to imagine any life other than living on the bottom rung.

It’s an idea Bahrani’s film brilliantly reinforces visually. The westernised wealth of the upper classes – living in gated communities and luxurious hotels, driving western cars with no contact with anyone outside other than servants – is contrasted with the slums and poverty of the rest of the population. Their parts of the city are run-down and crumbling. Many live on the streets. Balram himself lives on a mattress in the basement of his master’s hotel – while Ashok resides in a penthouse. You can’t escape the radical inequality – nor the violence (from slapping of servants to the implied threat of murder of your family if you step out of line) that keeps the system in place.

Part of the fascination of this film is wondering half the time, how much Balram is a willing participant in this system and how much he is longing to cast off its shackles. Sure we know, from the framing device of his later life, where he is heading. But is it his aim from the start? How genuine is his humbleness? As he schemes to have a rival driver dismissed, he talks in voiceover of his sadness – but on screen he merely shrugs and downs some sweetmeats. Does his resentment develop over the film, or is it there from the start – or does he only understand it as he realises he lives in a “chicken coop”?

As in the book its rife for interpretation – and Bahrani doesn’t lay on too think the unreliable narration element of Balram. It’s also helped immensely by Adarsh Gourav’s superb, BAFTA nominated performance in the lead role. He seems genuinely naïve and innocent – the very country pumpkin the other drivers at the hotel mock – but there is always an unknowable quality to him under the affable surface Gourav presents, a ruthlessness and also an anger. Watching both these qualities develop across the film – and questioning how well we know him – is a brilliant tight-rope walk, with Gourav maintaining our sympathies even as his actions become ever more ruthless.

He becomes an embodiment of the divide in India itself, between the mindset of being nothing more than a servant and the developing entrepreneurism in the country (represented both by the side jobs the rest of the drivers carry out as well as Balram’s later business success). It’s also fascinating to see the contrasts in his employers. Rajkummar Rao creates a character who is decent enough to know he’s treating people selfishly, while being lazy and immature enough to not bother to change. His wife, very well played by producer Priyanka Chopra Jones, speaks the language of a free America but is perfectly happy to force others to take the rap for her mistakes.

The film’s energy tails off in its second half as the plot catches up with the traffic accident that opens the film. The second half of the film tends to circle around the same issues of rich vs poor and the abuse of power that the first film explores with greater energy and wit. To be honest, you can tell an act of violence or betrayal is on the way – and the film takes too long to get there. A tighter film at an hour and 45 minutes would have been more effective and maintained the drive of the first half (even if it would have meant sacrificing some good individual scenes here and there).

But when the film is on song it works very well. The ideas it tackles around modern India feel very real and vital – and still carry plenty of relevance today. Bahrani balances the dark humour very well with the moral outrage and has a brilliant lead performance from Adarsh Gourav. It would have been better tighter which would have helped keep its pace and energy up, but this is still inventive and urgent film-making, a fine adaptation of an excellent novel.

Cromwell (1970)

Richard Harris let loose the revolution in Cromwell

Director: Ken Hughes
Cast: Richard Harris (Oliver Cromwell), Alec Guinness (King Charles I), Robert Morley (Earl of Manchester), Dorothy Tutin (Queen Henrietta Maria), Frank Finlay (John Carter), Timothy Dalton (Prince Rupert), Patrick Wymark (Earl of Strafford), Patrick Magee (Hugh Peters), Nigel Stock (Sir Edward Hyde), Charles Gray (Earl of Essex), Michael Jayston (Henry Ireton), Douglas Wilmer (Sir Thomas Fairfax), Geoffrey Keen (John Pym), Stratford Johns (President Bradshaw)

How much does history actually matter when you watch a historical film? We all know we aren’t watching a documentary don’t we? It’s worth bearing in mind when watching Cromwell a film which would probably be in the running for “least historically accurate film of all time”. But despite that, it’s entertaining and gets quite close to some of the spirit of the times – even if it changes most of the facts. It probably as well deserves notice for being one of the very few films to offer a sympathetic portrait of Oliver Cromwell – not a guy it’s easy to like.

It’s the 1640s, and England is a mess. Charles I (Alec Guinness) has been ruling the country directly, without involving Parliament, for over ten years. But now the money is gone and he needs Parliament to raise some more cash. Problem is, Parliament is more interested in pushing a defence of its own prerogatives rather than simply putting more money into the King’s pocket. Among the leaders of the Parliamentary campaign is Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), and he is not the man to take any false promises from the king. Before we know it, the country has tipped into civil war – and now it’s up to Cromwell to create a Parliamentarian army that is capable of defeating the King and bring democracy to the nation.

Ken Hughes film offers some plenty of scope and drama, even if is old-fashioned (even a little Victorian) in its Wrong-but-Wromantic Cavaliers and Right-but-Repulsive Roundheads (to mis-quote 1066 And All That). It’s a strange topic for a historical epic (it took years to get the funding) – but it looks fabulous and has a wonderful score that really embraces the religious music of the time.

What it gets right is the passion and the fire that people felt at the time for questions of politics and religion. The film frequently features heated debates (even if the dialogue is often more ticking boxes than inspired) that the actors invest with real force. Its view of events is of course truncated and at times simple (it is, after all, trying to cover around ten of the most tumultuous years in British history in about two hours), but it focuses on trying to get the spirit of things right.

A large part of this is Richard Harris’ firey performance in the lead role. There is, it has to be said, a cosmic irony in Cromwell, the least popular British leader in Irish history, winds up being played so sympathetically by one of the most famous Irish actors of all time. Sure, the real Cromwell would have hated being played by an Irishman and a Catholic (Cromwell was surprisingly inclusive at the time, but had no truck with either group). But then Cromwell would also have loved being portrayed as a mixture of George Washington and Cincinnatus (the Roman general who left his plough to assume supreme command when the nation needed him, only to retire again to obscurity). This Cromwell is bullheaded, but determined to do what’s best for the nation, with personal ambition not even a consideration. He’s the one true, selfless man in a revolution of violence.

In fact, Cromwell was sorely tempted by the eventual offer to be King (something he laughs off here). He also undoubtedly was touched heavily by ambition, while his attempt to turn the Protectorate into a hereditary office was a disaster that doomed the Republic (surely George Washington learned a few lessons from him). But, deep down, Cromwell was sincere – a guy who largely said, and did, what he meant. It’s that sense of morality that Harris gets very well here. And, while its easy to poke fun at those hoarse tirades Harris is frequently called on to deliver, this sort of intemperate ranting (laced with Biblical language and a strong sense of moral superiority) were pretty much central to Cromwell’s personality.

It makes for a very different hero, even if the film is determined to turn Cromwell into the only decent man in the Kingdom. Cromwell, in real life, never retreated from politics to return to his farm as he does in the latter part of the film (he actually spent this time on brutal campaign in Ireland, something the film mentions only vaguely in passing). But there is no doubt Cromwell would have believed he was the guy selected by providence to save the nation – and that idea the film channels very well. In fact, Cromwell gives you a pretty decent idea of what Cromwell might have been like – and a pretty accurate picture of who Cromwell wanted to be – even if the things it shows you only have a passing resemblance to what happened.

It’s a key directive throughout Ken Hughes’ film, which feels free to distort historical events willy-nilly (see more below). But there is a sort of truth in spirit, if not in fact – from the heated debate in Parliament, to the mixture of frantic panic and regimented order in the battles (one particularly good shot positions the camera under a charging horse, which makes a cavalry charge suddenly feel horrifyingly visceral). Sure it’s arranged into a much more simple black-and-white story, but it works.

A similar trick also works for its portrayal of Charles I. This is probably one of Guinness’ most over-looked performances. His Charles is a weak, indecisive man who confuses stubbornness and pride for moral strength. Softly spoken when calm, he collapses into heavily Scots accented rage when riled and his politeness is a only a shield for bitterness and vexation. He routinely shirks responsibility for his actions and spreads the blame around everyone but himself. Again, it might not all be accurate, but you can’t imagine this is far off from the actual King.

Historically though, so much of the film is wildly inaccurate. Many of these changes are done to increase the importance of Oliver Cromwell early in the Parliamentarian campaign. To scratch the surface: Cromwell – a minor figure until quite late into the war – was not one of the five members Charles marched to Parliament to arrest (neither was Henry Ireton). He certainly didn’t – and neither did anyone else – remain sitting when the troops arrived and set a motion in place protecting MPs. He never met the King before the war. Cromwell is later made C-in-C of the Parliamentarian army – an office actually given to Fairfax. The film’s depiction of the Battle of Naseby flips the numerical advantage exactly to favour Charles rather than Cromwell. Far from providing the key damning evidence at Charles’ trial, Hyde fled the country with Prince Charles.

But this is a fiction, rather than drama. Even if the facts it presents are largely nonsense, it gets a lovely sense of the divided loyalties and tensions that existed during this period. The performances are often quite broad – Robert Morley simpers and sneers as an opportunistic Manchester, Patrick Wymark growls and splutters as Strafford while Timothy Dalton goes way over the top as a foppish Prince Rupert – but some, such as Michael Jayston’s firebrand Ireton or Nigel Stock’s tortured Hyde (historical nonsense as his storyline is) are rather good.

And it’s hard not to like a film where the lead actor is going at it such great guns that you can actually hear his voice disappearing into a rasp. Cromwell doesn’t have much relation to the facts, but deep down it does seem to understand the man Cromwell wanted to be. And, on that level, it feels truthful and heartfelt – and that’s partly why it remains entertaining and why I remain rather fond of it.

Friday, 19 March 2021

Rocks (2020)

The lives of a group of friends in a London school is wonderfully bought to life in Rocks

Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Bukky Bakray (Olushola "Rocks" Omotoso), Kosar Ali (Sumaya), D’angelou Osei Kissiedu (Emmanuel Omotoso), Shaneigha-Monik Greyson (Roshé), Ruby Stokes (Agnes), Tawheda Begum (Khadijah), Afi Okaidja (Yawa), Anastasia Dymitrow (Sabina), Sarah Niles (Ms. Booker), Layo-Christina Akinlude (Funke Omotoso), Sharon D. Clarke (Anita)

It may have surprised people when Rocks emerged as the most nominated film at the BAFTA Awards for 2020. It really shouldn’t, as this independent film is not only rich, expressive and humanitarian film-making, it’s also a deeply heartfelt and emotional insight into overlooked lives in Britain, made with an expressive skill and richness.

Set in an inner-London school, the film follows Rocks (Bukky Bakray), a black teenage girl, left caring for her young brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) after her mother walks out on them (leaving just a note and small envelope of cash). Terrified of being taken in and separated by social services, Rocks struggles to cope with the pressures forced upon her.

It’s a simple plot – and could have been told with a Loachesque bleakness, like a modern-day Cathy Come Home. Instead though Gavon and writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson frame a story that could have been misery with warmth, love and hope. The film’s essential optimism and faith in the goodness of people makes it – for all the heart-breaking sadness it includes – a far more involving and moving film than a social lecture would have been.

It also treats its teenage characters not as future tearaways, thoughtless millennials or shallow bullies. Instead they feel like real, breathing and genuine people, capable of moments of thoughtlessness but still fundamentally decent. Rocks’ best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali, who is brilliant) is desperate to help her friend – and, for all the tears Rocks jealousy of her settled family causes, persists in being loyal and mature to the end. Even the disastrous mistake caused by Rocks’ friend Agnes comes only from an overwhelming desire to help. What also makes this film feel optimistic and real is that these disagreements are resolved with a mature kindness and emotional intelligence we could all learn from.

At the centre of is Rocks herself, played with an astonishingly naturalness and emotional rawness by Bukky Bakray. Rocks is a child forced to become an adult too early – eventually dragging Emmanuel around streets, from house to house and pretending she is his mother to book rooms in a hotel – all the time terrified to let her situation become known to social services. Rocks doesn’t have much in her life – a deceased father, a useless mother – and the thought of losing what family she has left is agonising to her. It’s what lies behind her bitter, subconscious, envy and rage at seeing the large and supportive family Sumaya has. It’s everything she has ever wanted but never had.

The only place where she can truly relax and be a child is at school. There she is free for a while of the pressures of home and caring for her brother. Gavron’s film shows an extraordinarily refreshing look at inner-city school life. These are kids who may behave ‘badly’ at points (but boisterous more than anything, captured in a food fight that breaks out in a cooking class), but they are passionate, engaged and ambitious. They have genuine dreams for the future – lawyer, businessmen, make-up artist are all careers mentioned – they seize with fascination on a lesson taught about Picasso. Far from the cliché of drifters, the film shows a world of teenagers full of passion, interest and talent – some of which, you fear, may never be truly tapped into.

It makes a real contrast with the harried doubts and concerns Rocks has to deal with in the ‘adult’ world. Her situation drives her to theft, lying and puts divides between her and her friends, who she seems unable to really open herself up to and ask for help. Her anxiety is picked up on by her adorable brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu gives a phenomenal performance of warmth, cheek and later devastating fear), who makes it his mission to cheer her up: a scene in a hotel where his simple, gentle attempts to comfort her and make her laugh are tear-inducingly endearing.

It’s all part of the winning humanity at the heart of the film. There are mistakes made in this film by its characters, forced separations and painful arguments. But, where other films would have used this as a bitter spiral to hammer home a depressing message about the bleakness of the world (and by implication of communities like this), this film remains optimistic. Despite everything, it ends with an image of a group of friends laughing and playing on a beach – they’ve feuded but have an emotional maturity to forgive adults could do with. It’s part of the fundamentally positive outlook.

The film even manages to not demonise social services in the way so many similar films do. Truth be told its clear Rocks can’t cope with these pressures – her friends know it even she and Emmanuel know it. The contrast between the girl we see in the opening moments and the increasingly insular and harassed figure she becomes is striking. Social services are genuinely concerned people – who are right to be concerned. The eventual resolution is remarkable for its normality and even touches of positivity and hope for a new beginning. It’s a film that explores the life of the less well off in the inner-city without preaching at or depressing us.

And that optimism is its greatest strength, as it allows us to see people rather than social issues. It’s an agenda-free film that simply tries to tell a human story – and, with the energy and passion its shot with, immerses us in the lives of a group of people many of us would walk past without thinking about. Rocks is about a world where people want to rally round and help, where hope and new beginnings can be found in any situation. It doesn’t shy away from moments of pain – and there are moments here that will break your heart – but it never loses its optimism and humanity.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd are making the best of small-time life in The Last Picture Show

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Timothy Bottoms (Sonny Crawford), Jeff Bridges (Duane Jackson), Cybill Shepherd (Jacy Farrow), Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion), Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper), Ellen Burstyn (Lois Farrow), Eileen Brennan (Genevieve), Clu Gulager (Abilene), Sam Bottoms (Billy), Randy Quaid (Lester Marlow), Gary Brockette (Bobby Sheen)

“Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed…” So went the tagline for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Change, or rather the lack of it, is the heartbeat of this film. It’s small time (fictional) Texas town isn’t a million miles from the Wild West dustbowls. You feel nothing has really changed for decades, the same faces in the town have just got older. But the tagline suggests that, in many ways, the 1950s were not that different from the progressive 1970s. Sex and scandal lie under the surface of the town, with the inhabitants having little to distract them from boredom other than seducing each other. Unlike the sort of traditional films shown in the picture show – Father of the Bride or Red River – this town is just drifting, a change in America both round the corner but also feeling like something that would slide off the town like water from a duck’s back.

The film largely follows three high schoolers are preparing for graduation. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are on the town’s useless high school football team (a uselessness no-one will let them forget). Duane is dating Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), a woman just discovering the power of her looks – and Sonny longs for her himself. Instead, Sonny starts an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the overlooked, lonely housewife of his football coach. Romantic entanglements abound, but life drifts on with the younger generation thinking sometimes of the future, but really repeating the mistakes of the older generation – people like Jacy’s cynical mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) and the owner of the town’s pool-hall, cinema and diner, the fading conscience of the town Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).

Bogdanovich’s film was a sensation when it was released, a key part of the New Wave films in Hollywood. It has lasted, in the way other films from the period haven’t, because it has a subtly simple but compelling story, shot as a perfect fusion of French New Wave styles with John Ford and Orson Welles inspired classicism. Bogdanovich’s film buffery is obvious from every frame – not just from the film posters announcing what is being shown at the picture palace, but also from its loving use of French-style realism and lack of glamour, set and framed in the Fordian style, often stressing isolation, intercut with homages to Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

And in it we have a series of young people who seem to have no idea either where they, or the world is heading. Timothy Bottoms acts with such effortless naturalism, it’s easy to forget he is even acting at all. It’s a perfectly judged performance of a very normal young man, low on aspiration and inspiration, selfish in the way the young are but full of passion and regret. Jeff Bridges is similarly brilliant, playing a not-particularly smart (or particularly successful) school sports star in a performance completely free of any condescension or camera winking, but played with a charming honesty. These are supremely normal young men. Generally decent, well-meaning and naïve, not knowing what it is they want or need from life. They would fit as neatly into 1971, with their dreams, as they do in 1951. Especially as Duane packs off to head to Korea (no real difference from Vietnam).

And a lot of these dreams revolve around sex – and often sex with Jacy. Cybil Shepherd was a sensation on the film’s release, seen as the ultimate late-teen temptress and sexpot. But in fact, Jacy is (in her way) as much of an innocent as the others. She’s a woman only just discovering her own passions and longings. Who doesn’t want to become the jaded figure her mother has become – but working out the easiest way to get what she wants (be that a better boyfriend, better chances or even just some attention) is through using her physical attributes. Her sexual experimentation is, in a way, liberating – and just another attempt to find an answer to her own aimlessness. Sure – encouraged by her mother – she doesn’t invest anything emotionally in these entanglements. But is it really all that different from Sonny’s own using of Ruth Popper?

Ruth Popper is emblematic of the sadder older generation in the town. You can imagine they must have had hopes and dreams – or were once as breezily uncaring – as the younger generation. But they’ve found out, just as they will, that things don’t change. That you can blink and find yourself twenty years down the line, unhappy and lonely in a place you can’t seem to escape.

Cloris Leachman is outstanding as Ruth (she won an Oscar), the only person in the all the film’s couplings that we see expressing tenderness and vulnerability (in a film full of sexual encounters, the most intimate thing we see is her combing Sonny’s hair). She dares to slowly open herself up emotionally to believing in Sonny – to seeing their affair as more than just the booty call it starts as, but as something with a future. From the tearful fragility of her first scenes – her buttoned up matronly appearance, making her look far older than she is – she blossoms into a warmer, excited, person. It makes her inevitable betrayal by Sonny all the more heart-wrenching – along with her self-loathing fury that closes the film.

All the adults are drifting through the same disappointing life. Ellen Burstyn (also nominated) is wonderful as Jacy’s mother, who continually defies expectations. This mother is unfazed by her daughter sleeping with her lover, suggests that she might as well experiment sexually so she can find out it’s not all that and carries a revelation of deep loss and personal tragedy that only comes to light late in the film but is there in the character from the start. Other adults seem equally aware of their pointlessness: the coach is a repressed homosexual, the English teacher seems resigned to teaching Keats to bored students, Jacy’ father is a blow-hard nobody, Sonny’s father is a stranger to him. Only Eileen Brennan (excellent) motherly waitress still seems to have some hope.

Sonny’s surrogate father – and the heart of the film – is local businessman Sam the Lion. Johnson is superb, gifted a surprisingly small number of scenes but which establish both his moral force and his position as a link to a halcyon days past in America that might not really exist. Bogdanovich gives Johnson a knock-out speech (surely what won him the Oscar) – an Everett-Sloane-in-Kane inspired remembrance of a relationship from long ago, where the world seemed full of hope and opportunity, that perhaps get closest to defining the film’s sad reflection on how little those two things actually seem to exist in the present.

But it’s also about the temptation of memory. Bogdanovich’s masterpiece (it was all downhill in his career from here), The Last Picture Show knows only too well how quickly we realise life is a confusing, compromised mess. And the film, for all its old-school Hollywood style, is all about the past being just as a confusing, empty, sex-filled place of loss as the present is. Things have always been like this – and they probably always will. Welcome to Anarene. Nothing has changed.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal forge an unlikely friendship in the tame heritage flick Victoria and Abdul

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench (Queen Victoria), Ali Fazal (Abdul Karim), Tim Pigott-Smith (Sir Henry Ponsonby), Eddie Izzard (Prince Albert), Adeel Akhtar (Mohammad Bakhsh), Michael Gambon (Lord Salisbury), Paul Higgins (Dr James Reid), Olivia Williams (Baroness Spencer), Fenella Woolgar (Harriet Phipps), Robin Soans (Lord Stamfordham), Simon Callow (Giacomo Puccini)

In the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench – who else?) makes an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of her closest friends and advisors. As Victoria and Abdul become closer, the rest of the court are outraged – bad enough that the Queen is spending all this time with an over-promoted servant, but an Indian as well?!

The fundamental events of Victoria & Abdul are true. There was a man called Abdul Karim – and Victoria did raise him from servant to a confidant. He did cause conflict in the royal household and was finally sent back to India after her death, after surrendering most of his papers. But Victoria & Abdul repackages this friendship into a cosy, Sunday-afternoon entertainment, bereft of depth. And carefully works on the rough surfaces to make the story smooth and easy to digest.

The film is clearly trying to ape the success of Mrs Brown – a far more intelligent and emotionally complex (if similarly heritage) film that looked at Victoria’s previous all-consuming friendship with a male servant, John Brown. But that film didn’t close its eyes to the negatives of such relationships, as this one does. It made clear royal attention can be fickle – and being elevated above others can help make you your own worst enemy. In that film, after a honeymoon, the friendship declines into one of residual loyalty but reduced affection. It’s a realistic look at how we might lean on someone at times of grief, but separate ourselves from them later. Victoria & Abdul takes only one lesson from Mrs Brown: that a close bond between monarch and commoner is heart-warming.

The film in general is in love with the idea that if the Queen could only speak directly to her people, the world would be a better place. It presents a Victoria stifled by court procedure who knows very little about her empire and is constrained by the courtiers around her. It wants us to think that if the Queen took direct rule, she’d be kinder, wiser and more humane. That this figurehead symbol could craft a better British Empire if she was an absolute monarch.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. This romantic view of “Victoria the Good” is comforting stuff, but undermined even within the film by our introduction to the Queen at a royal dinner, where Victoria stuffs food down herself so quickly that mountains of untouched food goes uneaten on the plates of the other diners (as all plates are removed the moment she is finished). And despite being told that the Koh-i-noor diamond was stolen by the British (to her surprise), she still doesn’t think twice about wearing it later in the film while in the midst of her Indian passion. And while the real Victoria loathed the racist attitudes of some at her court, she still clearly sees herself as a paternalistic mother figure for India, which could of course never be able to make its own decisions about things.

Not that the film is interested in tackling more complex ideas of the position of India and its independence. It’s similarly confused by Abdul himself. In a more interesting film, Abdul would have been partly naïve servant and partly charming rogue. He very carefully spins an invented story of himself as a teacher and thinker (he’s actually a clerk from a fabric office) and it would have been interesting to see his building of a relationship with Victoria at least partly being based on self-gain. He certainly gains an awful lot from her – from his own carriage on her train to a home and his own servants. It would have been possible to have this side of him and still have his loyalty and friendship to the Queen being genuine. But it’s too much for the film to tackle.

An Abdul who was consciously playing a role of exotic thinker might have come across as a scam-artist – but would have given the film a lot more to play with, when the royal court is full of people positioning and presenting themselves for influence. Adeel Ahktar’s fellow-servant Mohammed even suggests in one scene that this is what Abdul is doing – and good luck to him. But the film is scared that this could be seen as endorsing the court’s fears about Abdul. So the character is neutered into nothing: he becomes exactly the sort of empty “exotic”, free of opinion and character, that filled out the extras list of a 1940s epic. He has no agency, never makes any decision or expresses any opinion. And his feelings for Victoria are presented as totally genuine which, combined with his foot kissing, turns him into someone who looks and feels really servile.

This is because the film wants to tell the story of a perfect friendship, with the British upper classes as the hissible baddies (never mind that no one is more upper class than Victoria). Never mind that Abdul’s action will indirectly condemn Mohammed to death in the British climate – or that while Abdul rises, Mohammed becomes his servant, still consigned to sleeping on the floor of his railway carriage. We learn nothing about Abdul. How did this clean-living saint become riddled with the clap? Why did he die so young? Did he really think nothing of the riches and honours Victoria showered him with? We don’t have a clue.

Instead the film keeps it simple with goodies (Victoria and Abdul) and baddies (almost everyone else). The most politically astute character, Mohammed, disappears and never allows things to get unpleasant. Jokes of the courtiers standing around aghast saying things like “Now he’s teaching her Urdu” are repeated multiple times. They’re fun, but it substitutes for dealing with the real issues.

It all has the air of ticking boxes. Frears’ direction is brisk, efficient and free of personality. Dench is great, but she could play this role standing on her head while asleep. Pigott-Smith (in his final role) is fine but Farzal has nothing to work with and Izzard provides a laughable pantomime role of lip-smacking villainy as the future Edward VII. The finest performance – handling the most interesting material – is from Ahktar. He’s the only character who seems to place what we see here in any form of context. Other than that, this film is just a string of very comforting heritage ideas, thrown together with professionalism but a total lack of inspiration.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Equus (1977)

Richard Burton struggles to diagnose Peter Firth in play adaptation Equus

Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Richard Burton (Dr Martin Dysart), Peter Firth (Alan Strang), Colin Blakely (Frank Strang), Joan Plowright (Dora Strang), Harry Andrews (Harry Dalton), Eileen Atkins (Hesther Saloman), Jenny Agutter (Jill Mason)

In a parallel universe somewhere, there is a film version of Equus that doesn’t have a single horse in it. It’s probably a better version than this. Peter Shaffer’s stage play was a sensation in the 1970s in the West End and on Broadway – but Lumet’s film robs it of the mystique that made it work, by introducing a (literally) brutal realism. This helps reduce the play into being a quite self-important piece of cod-psychology, with ideas that increasingly seem more simplistic the longer the play lasts.

Dr Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is a depressed and discontented child psychologist, who is struggling with a general sense of ennui, not sure what is life is for and stuck in a loveless, functional marriage. These feelings grow in him, as he begins to work on the case of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a troubled young man who blinded an entire staple of horses in a seemingly random act of brutality. What were the deep-rooted psychological problems that caused Alan to carry out this senseless attack? And, by curing it, will Dysart remove from Alan anything that makes him unique?

Shaffer’s stage play used a combination of impressionistic moments, and mime artists, to create the impression of the horses that dominate the imagination (and desires) of Strang. Moments of horse riding (or eventual blinding) were presented symbolically. Meanwhile, Dysart functions as a quasi-narrator, delivering long speeches to the audience on the case, it’s causes and (increasingly) his own feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. It’s a tightrope, that manages to prevent the at-times portentous dialogue and student psychology from seeing either too self-important or slight. Lumet loses this mesmeric suggestiveness, doubling down on its pomposity. It makes for a bit of a mess.

I can totally see why, on film, it was felt necessary to go for real horses. However, it just plain doesn’t quite work. Watching a nude Peter Firth hug, stroke and eventually ride a horse until he reaches an orgasm mid-canter, might have had a sort of magic acted out on stage with dumb-show, puppets and actors as horses. On film, it’s tiresome and suddenly way too much. That’s as nothing compared to the decision to stage the blinding of the horses at the film’s end by showing us in graphic detail a sickle plunging into the eyes of alarmingly real-looking horses, blood pouring across Firth’s face. As that’s (pretty much) the last impression left on the audience for the film, rather than swept up in symbolism you’ll feel grossed out by the graphic violence. It’s not good for the play.

In fact, overlong and too full of speeches and not enough scenes, you watch this and start to wonder if Equus was much cop in any case. Certainly, the way it’s staged here doesn’t work. When Shaffer worked with Milos Forman on Amadeus that play was radically re-worked, extended and remodelled into an actual film that shared lines and DNA with the play, but was a very different beast. Equus is basically pretty close to an exact filming of the stage script, except on location. The show-stopping speeches by Dysart – brilliantly delivered by Burton as they are – come across heavy-handed, portentous and (in the end) off-putting and alienating.

That’s to mention nothing about the plays take on sex and psychology which feels very tired. Needless to say, Strang’s problem is rooted in his relationship with his parents (they fuck you up, you know). His mother (played with wound-up tension by Joan Plowright) is a holier-than-thou type who thinks sex is something a little dirty, while his father (an equally buttoned-up Colin Blakely) is a deeply repressed man who thinks sex is something to be ashamed off. Bound that up with the parents clashes about religion and you wind up with a boy who sublimates his sexual feeling into a confused horse worship, laced with religious overtones.

Which all sounded more daring then than perhaps it does now. Now this sort of sexual confusion (various theories suggest that the young Colin felt his first ever sexual longings after sharing a ride on a horse with a young man and – ashamed of these homosexual yearnings – transferred the association with sex from the man to the horse) was familiar then – it’s pretty much the first thing we look for now. And the insights the play offers around this, don’t carry nearly enough impact or insight to make you feel you are learning something. Anger, frustration, impotence, fear and shame all rear their heads as expected.

Saying that, Peter Firth – who originated the role at both the National and on Broadway – is excellent as Strang. It’s a full-bloodied, committed performance – but also one that is packed with an acute empathy and insight, a sensitive empathy and vulnerability that makes Strang deeply sympathetic even when he is at his most odd.

Richard Burton – who lost his final Oscar bid with this film – is also very good as Dysart. The rich Burton voice is perfectly used for Dysart’s monologues (all filmed in one day, in consecutive order, by Lumet). Burton’s puffy, unhealthy face also matches up perfectly with the sadness and resignation in Dysart – qualities that Burton again brilliantly conveys, his eyes brimming with regrets and his voice catching behind it oceans of confusion, sorrows and self-accusation. It’s one of Burton’s greatest performances, the ideas and elaborate language being a gift for an actor like him who worked best when challenged with complex material.

Unfortunately, the play itself is bogged down in a grimy, unattractive literalism that grinds the life out of it and ends up making it look very slight (this isn’t helped by its huge length). While the acting is very good – Jenny Agutter is also excellent as a young woman whose attempted seduction of Strang triggers a breakdown – the direction is leaden and the play ends up feeling histrionic and simplistic rather than engrossing and insightful.

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

Jack Hawkins plans the perfect crime in The League of Gentlemen

Director: Basil Dearden
Cast: Jack Hawkins (Lt Col Norman Hyde), Nigel Patrick (Major Peter Race), Roger Livesey (Captain “Padre” Mycroft), Richard Attenborough (Lt Edward Lexy), Bryan Forbes (Captain Martin Porthill), Kieron Moore (Captain Stevens), Terence Alexander (Major Rupert Rutland-Smith), Norman Bird (Captain Frank Weaver), Robert Coote (Brigadier “Bunny” Weaver), Nanette Newman (Elizabeth Rutland-Smith)

You throw a gentleman on the scrap heap at your peril. After a lifetime of service, Lt Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) has been made redundant – and, to put it bluntly, he’s pissed off. However, a gentleman doesn’t get mad, he gets even. And what better way to do that than using your army training to mastermind the finest bank heist Britain has ever seen? To pull it off, Hyde recruits a team of similarly disgruntled Army officers (all cashiered from the army for a range of offences, from theft to implied sexual demeanours) all of them highly trained specialists. What could possibly go wrong?

The League of Gentlemen was the first film from a short-lived British production company Allied Films. The company was a partnership between Dearden, Hawkins, Attenborough (who did a lot of the producing) and Forbes (who wrote the film’s witty, playful script). The film is a delight, a wonderfully executed heist movie, told with an archness that turns its criminals into sympathetic rogues. It’s really a sort of dry comedy and gets a lot of fun out of British attitudes at the time.

For starters, who would think that gentlemen like this (war heroes for goodness sake!) would ever be involved in anything so naughty as armed robbery? Especially in a country so deferential that – in a cunning raid to pinch guns from a military base – conman “Padre” (Roger Livesey, riffing delightfully on his Blimpish persona, as a conman with a shady past) simply turns up dressed as a superior officer and is instantly accepted as such. Just to complete the satire of prejudices at the time, the members of the team lifting the guns are ordered to speak with Irish accents as after all “We British never give the Irish the benefit of the doubt”, and even the a whiff of an Irish accent will whack the blame straight onto the IRA.

But this also a film having a bit of fun with demobilised fellows who have never quite found their place in civvie street – and may even miss the glamour and excitement of the war. Most of the team are clearly veterans of WW2, and many of them are struggling with demanding landlords, unfaithful wives or dismally dull jobs. How could they resist saddling up for one more grand adventure? Especially when there is a huge suitcase of money waiting for them at the end of it.

Dearden’s direction is taut, sharp but also gives more than enough room for the character comedy. He stages the heists with a briskness and efficiency that you can imagine Michael Mann being quite pleased with (the gas mask wearing, gun totting soldiers have more than a passing resemblance to the robbers in Heat – enough to make you think Mann may have watched this film somewhere along the line). Dearden’s storytelling is clear, well staged and inventive (the raid on the army base is shown to us without briefing, meaning we work out the plan as it progresses).

He’s helped enormously by Bryan Forbes’ fun and quotable script, that swiftly but skilfully distinguishes the characteristics of each man and their motivations and makes a perfect balance between affectionate comedy and the sharpness of danger (the group make clear they will “do what’s necessary” if pushed, even if they aim is no bloodshed). The film is built around several wonderful set pieces – and has a classic, almost pre-James Bond parody opening as Hawkins emerges from a manhole cover dressed in a dinner suit and climbs into a car.

Hawkins is great here, spoofing the troubled war heroes and authority figures he spent his whole career playing. Here he inverts all this straight-shooting, “Queen and country first” attitude into a man with the outside trappings of decency, but with a bitter heart and cynicism towards the world. He carries most of the film with a deceptive effortlessness, but nails the tone exactly between fun and genuine frustration at the world.

The whole cast follow his lead. Nigel Patrick is very good as a cashiered Major who enjoys mockingly parroting all the eccentric mannerisms of upper-class gentlemen. Livesey enjoys the self-parody almost as much as Hawkins (he spends nearly every seen looking like he’s only a few degrees away from giggling). Attenborough is fun as a chippy junior officer while Terence Alexander is great as a frustrated cuckold lost on civvie street. There isn’t a weak link in the whole cast.

The film is a delight, fun but with more than enough tension. It brilliantly captures a sense of the camaraderie and loyalty between these ex-soldiers, as well as their delight at being used able to use their skills one final time. It’s a film squarely on the side of these criminals thumbing their noses at the system (and who are planning as close as they can get to a victimless crime, albeit at gun point). The film has to give them some sort of comeuppance at the end – but you’ll be sorry to see it, as by then you’ll be invested at pulling off the heist as they are. Well directed, acted and written it’s a perfect entertainment.

Friday, 12 March 2021

Children of Men (2006)

Clive Owen and Claire-Hope Ashitey could be the last hope for mankind in the masterful Children of Men

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Clive Owen (Theo Faron), Julianne Moore (Julian Taylor), Claire-Hope Ashitey (Kee), Michael Caine (Jasper Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Luke), Charlie Hunnam (Patric), Pam Ferris (Miriam), Peter Mullan (Syd), Danny Huston (Nigel)

Children of Men was overlooked on release. But the more it ages, the more it clearly hasn’t aged it at all. Criminally ignored at the major awards, this might well be the finest film of 2006 and certainly one of the best movies of the noughties. Rich in thought-provoking content and cinematic skill, this is truly great-film-making from Alfonso Cuarón. Dark, grim, edgy but also laced with hope, faith and kindness, Children of Men grows in statue with each viewing, rewarding you more and more.

It’s 2027 and the world has gone to hell. Mysteriously mankind became infertile 18 years ago, and faced with the despair that the extinction of the human race is inevitable, society has collapsed. Cities lie in ruins and war has torn countries apart: Britain “stands alone”, one of the few with a functioning government – even though that government is a totalitarian, nationalist police state. Aggressive campaigns are waged against refugees from around the world, who are herded into hellish concentration camps. In this chaos, Theo (Clive Owen) is a disaffected civil rights activist, now plodding through a dead-end job and smoking weed with his friend, ex-newspaper cartoonist Jasper (Michael Owen). All this changes when he is entrusted by his activist/’terrorist’ estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore) to protect Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who carries inside her something that could change the whole of humanity: an unborn child.

Today Children of Men seems alarmingly prescient. In a world of migrant crises, Brexit, Trump and coronavirus (the film even refers to a flu pandemic of 2008!) the vision of the future it presents seems only a few degrees away from our reality. Rather than a hellish view, it seems more and more like something that could happen. Everything is worn out and grubby. Streets are lined with rubbish, buildings coated with graffiti. Televisions and advertising screens alternate between demands to report immigrants with promotions for “Quietus”, a suicide pill. Fences, armed police, barbed wire and crowds of filthy, terrified and brutalised people are common. Humanity has given-up: there is no hope in the world.

It’s that collapse of any sense of hope and optimism that has driven this collapse of society in Cuarón’s vision. In a world where the extinction of mankind is inevitable, what’s the point contributing to society or worrying about your legacy or the future? Why preserve anything when no-one will be around to see it in a hundred years? By such fragile threads, does society hold itself together. The crushing depression of knowing you live in the final days of humanity is everywhere. There is not a single person alive in their teens: a fact hammered home by the characters visiting a deserted and derelict school. Everyone has lost any sense of purpose, with life a grim daily grind.

Perhaps that’s also why physically the world hasn’t changed much. Unlike most “future set” dramas, this view of 2027 could be 2006, just dirtier and with a few more electronic screens (in fact this has helped hugely in not dating the film). It’s like all life has stagnated. And liberals like Theo have turned into apathetic drunks, drifting blithely through life not bothering to engage or change anything about the shit show all around them

All this makes the film sound impossibly grim – and Cuarón is superb in building this world (including the genius stroke of never explaining, even in the smallest detail, what has caused this pandemic of infertility – the film is refreshingly free of any clumsy scene setting) – but it works because it’s a film laced with hope and a belief in the fundamental goodness of people. The story has overtones of a religious fable: Theo and Kee as a sort of Joseph and Mary travelling to protect an unborn child whose birth could save the world. Specially composed choral music, rife with religious overtones, underplays key moments and scenes subtly leaning into this spiritual journey.

And the goodness that people find in themselves is inspiring. Theo, brilliantly played by Clive Owen who has just the right dissolute cynicism hiding crusading courage, may have given up but actually he’s a deeply empathetic and caring man. Animals instinctively love him. He’s a natural protector, who shows concern in all sorts of ways for people him, who puts himself at risk to protect people and refuses to ever accept defeat. But he’s a million miles away from a super-man, getting increasingly dishevelled, bashed and brutalised, while his struggles with footwear (he carries out action sequences  wearing just socks, then flip-flops and finally barefoot) is both a neat little gag and also a sign of how vulnerable he is in this dangerous world.

Cuarón’s film builds brilliantly on his empathy to carefully and beautifully build the growing understanding and trust between Theo and Kee (equally well played by Claire-Hope Ashitey). Again, it stems first from his protectiveness (Theo also works hard to protect people around him from disturbing sights, twice urging Kee not to look back and that whoever has been left behind is fine), but also from her instinctive trust in him as a good man and above the only one who seems to have her interests at heart (everyone else is concerned only with what Kee can symbolise – Ejiofor’s vigilante Luke can’t even get the sex of the baby right). Kee is vulnerable, but strong and determined, someone trying to carry the burden of being the hope of mankind.

She’s also brilliantly a member of the very migrant community that the government is trying to destroy. Cuarón’s film wants us all to remember that we are all the same deep down, that what happens to one affects us all. The horrors of what the British government are doing in the war-torn slums of migrant prisons (all of Bexhill has become a lawless hell hole, where executions and riots are daily occurrences) reek of everything from Auschwitz to Guantanamo. But amongst these migrants come the only strangers who seek to help Theo and Kee out of simple goodness and humanity. Strangers put themselves at huge risk, and in many cases sacrifice their lives, to help them. It makes a stark contrast with the revolutionaries who claim to fight for the migrants (but show no compunction in shooting them when needed), but really are only interested in their own selfish battles with no understanding of the bigger picture.

This bigger picture is very much like the thematic richness of the film that was missed on its released. It’s almost a victim of its own technical brilliance, which attracted much more attention at the time. Cuarón constructs several sequences to appear as single-takes, and the stunning camera work really helps establish this grimy, brutal world. It’s a wonderfully immersive film, a technical marvel. Every single part of the photography and design is pitch-perfect, and the key sequences are stomach-churningly tense, inspired by everything from The Battle of Algiers to A ClockworkOrange.

But the film works because it is underpinned by faith and trust in the human spirit. Mankind is being challenged like never before, but Cuarón shows us that the human spirit can survive. That simple acts of kindness can still happen. That there is a chance of hope. The final conclusion of the film is both sad but also upliftingly hopeful. Cuarón’s direction is just-about perfect, as are the performers (not just Owen and Ashitey but also an almost unrecognisible Caine as an ageing Hippie). With its acute and brilliant analysis of humanity – both in its grimness and capacity for goodness and selflessness – and with its prescient look at how easily our world could collapse, Children of Men is vibrant, brilliant, essential film-making.

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

Chadwick Boseman excels in his final performance in the stagy Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Director: George C Wolfe
Cast: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey), Chadwick Boseman (Levee Green), Glynn Turman (Toledo), Colman Domingo (Cutler), Michael Potts (Slow Drag), Jonny Coyne (Mel Sturdyvant), Taylor Paige (Dussie Mae), Jeremy Shamod (Irvin), Dusan Brown (Sylvester)

In a Chicago recording studio in July 1927, while the sun beats down outside, blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is due to record some of her greatest hits. But she’s almost an hour late. The people who made it on time are her backing jazz band. Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) are seasoned pros. But trumpet player Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) is something else, an ambitious and electric young man who feels he knows what the new sound is in a way that Ma doesn’t. Over an afternoon, as Ma flexes her power upstairs, the white agent and recording studio owner fret, and tensions between the band members slowly simmer towards and explosion.

It’s impossible to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom right now without being very aware of the tragic early death of Chadwick Boseman. Boseman passed away while the film was in post-production, and it’s hard not to guiltily wonder if Boseman was aware this was to be his final performance. Either way, this was a stunning way for this electric, James Dean-like talent to sign off – a scintillating, passionate performance as a man carrying huge burdens and deeply repressed griefs and guilt. August Wilson’s play provides several key set-piece speeches for Levee – and Boseman burns through them with an intensity that will leave its mark on you.

Bright-eyed, with a wiry body of elastic tension that shifts from loose, jazzy movements to rigid bursts of fury, Boseman is extraordinary. Starting the film as seemingly an irresponsible, easy-going young man frustrated at the concessions of his elders, Boseman establishes a deep psychological pain at his core. He’s a young man who has seen his parents vilely mistreated by oppressive white men, who smiles to get what he wants but never forgets that the white bosses he works with see him as little better than a slave, ripe for exploiting. It’s a brilliant performance, one for the ages.

It dominates a film that is told with dynamism but never escapes its theatrical roots. Its set-piece speeches are virtuoso moments for the actors, but the silent observance with which they are watched by other actors feels more suited to theatre rather than the realism of film. The build towards the film’s tragic end, hinging on a moment of violence, is the sort of character breakdown that we accept in the theatre, but seems forced on film – especially when met with the sort of visual tableaux that seems to invite the curtain to come down. Wolfe directs what is very much a conversation piece in two locations with a great deal of energy and imagination – but it remains very much a theatrical venture at heart, where long speeches and elements of Greek tragedy (hubris, nemesis and character flaws) shape the plot.

But it doesn’t altogether matter when the ideas the film tackles are so vibrant and presented with such passion. It’s a film that sharply outlines the racial divide in America. Wilson’s play is all about how master/servant exploitation continues in America. Its early shots establish the only work black people in Chicago can find (all of it manual or secretarial), while the musicians are paid cash-in-hand, even Ma, because no bank will believe a black man hasn’t stolen a cheque.

"All they want is my voice” says Ma, and she’s right. A difficult prima-donna, unafraid of expressing her desires both musical and sexual, Davis is larger-than-life but impressive as the domineering Ma. But Ma behaves badly because it’s the only way she has of exerting some control in this environment. She won’t see the profits from this recording work (it will be the white men running the studio). So, just for a few hours, she wants to remind them that they rely on her. So, she’ll be late. She’ll demand a cold coke. And she’ll insist her stammering nephew speaks the opening monologue of the song, even if that does mean burning through several recording albums to get it right. Because Ma may be an artist, but she’s also a tool to these people – something they will use while she can earn them money, and will then cast aside the second she is done.

It’s the same with the band. And the older hands have accepted it. Sure, they have their resentments and their sadnesses – old pro Toledo even remembers when he had the fire like Levee has – but they understand the game. They are props in the white man’s game, and they are content to earn a decent living from something they like doing, knowing that they are still living a better life than many. Cutler even has his faith to bolster him, a faith Leveee rejects in Boseman’s most electric scene, with a speech that angrily denounces God for his unfairness towards black people.

Levee is another thing again to the rest of them. He has plans and ambitions and wants to form his own band. He’s written his own songs, which have far more of the zip that we know jazz is heading towards. He’ll play nice to get what he wants, but he’s not willing for a second to forget how racist the world is. And he won’t let go of his anger for a moment. Compromise for him only serves a purpose. His youthful defiance and lack of deference spark resentment in the others – who either can’t or won’t understand him – and even Ma, perhaps seeing him as a threat, can’t stand him.

It of course leads to tragedy – and a coda that grimly reminds us all that in this world there may be winners but the thing that unites them all is that they are white. Jazz music may be on the cusp of change – and Ma will pay that price in a few years – but America isn’t. You only need to look at how the musicians are treated to know that equality is a million miles away.

The cast are faultless. Turman carries a quiet sadness and resignation as the ageing Toledo. Colman Domingo is relaxed then taut as Cutler. Taylor Paige has a dangerously selfish energy as Ma’s younger lover Dussie. But it’s still more of a play than a film, even if it is told with pace and energy, acted with such flourish and passion. It leaves you with effective and engaging arguments, but it still feels like it work best in the theatre.

Monday, 8 March 2021

The Agony and Ecstasy (1965)

Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston debate the creation of art in The Agony and Ecstasy

Director: Carol Reed
Cast: Charlton Heston (Michelangelo Bounarroti), Rex Harrison (Pope Julius II), Diane Cilento (Contessina Antonia Romola de’Medici), Harry Andrews (Donato Bramante), Alberto Lupo (Duke of Urbino), Adolfo Celi (Giovanni de’Medici), Venantino Vanentini (Paris De Grassis), John Stacey (Giulano da Sangallo)

Call a film The Agony and the Ecstasy and you are tempting fate with the critics. Make your recurring dialogue phrase “When will you make an end?” and you are practically writing the negative headlines for them. Your enjoyment of The Agony and the Ecstasy is pretty going to be pretty much directly linked to your level of interest in Renaissance art, the Sistine Chapel and stodgy Hollywood epics. Don’t care for any of those? This probably isn’t the film for you. For me, I love the first two – and I have a terrible weak spot for the third. I know (trust me, I know) films like this aren’t that good really, but they go about their epic work with such earnestness that they always suck me in.

The film, an adaptation of a doorstop novel by Irving Stone, tells the story of Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) commissioning Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) to paint the Sistine Chapel. It’s a job which Julius expects will be done and dusted in a couple of months: instead it takes almost four years (and that’s just the ceiling, the film doesn’t even cover the artist moving on to The Last Judgement!). Rejecting the original concept, Michelangelo decides to turn fresco painting on its head: and so one of the greatest masterpieces of all time is born.

The Agony and the Ecstasy lost a bucket load of money (despite this is hoovered up five Oscar nominations, most of which focused on its strengths, above all, it’s 1:1 recreation of the Sistine Chapel which is progressively covered in paint as the film progresses). It more often than not tips somewhere between documentary and reverence of God, the Church, the Artist or all three at once. The first 12 minutes of the film is literally a documentary, a run-down of the artist’s career with mid-Atlantic voice-over and reverential visual slide-show of the artist’s greatest hits.

Once the action starts, all too often the film heads into “men in tights” territory, a stilted, personality-free Hollywood version of the Renaissance, all primary colours and dubbed European actors. Directing, with a smooth emptiness, is Carol Reed. Remember when Reed made films like The Third Man and Odd Man Out? How could the man who made films as original and dynamic as those close out his career making such middle-of-the-road fare as this and Oscar-winner Oliver? Reed delivers by-the-numbers. From swelling chords of Alex North’s well-judged score at our first sight of the interior of the (unpainted) Sistine chapel to the pristine pictorial pleasantry of the marble quarry Michelangelo retreats to, there is not a single unique or interesting shot in the film.

The closest the film gets to visual dynamism is the half-way point as Michelangelo heads to the mountains for inspiration, to see the clouds form themselves into (what we recognise as) the Creation fresco from the chapel. But then perhaps Reed reckoned he couldn’t bring us anything as visually striking as the ceiling (and to be fair who can?). So, the film doesn’t compete.

Instead it settles down into demonstrating the mechanics of how the ceiling is completed. While you could get a good dig in here that we see a real time painting of the ceiling, in fact I felt this demonstration of how you go about transferring a design to a ceiling was fascinating. Certainly, you can see why it takes a burden on Michelangelo. The film builds some nominal drama about whether it will ever be finished: but since it’s clear Julius (who at times is a bit of a “why I oughta…” boss, frustrated but amused by a protégé’s shenanigans) and Michelangelo (tempestuous of course, as artists are) have no intention of not finishing it, it’s pretty manufactured. But it doesn't matter because this is really a story of the glory of fine art - and the burdens of its creation. And on that score it's very successful and, for all its earnestness, very effective.

Charlton Heston gives a fine performance as the great artist. While there is no hint of Michelangelo’s probable sexual flexibility – Heston claims to have done his research and decided there was no way any of that was going on in the artist’s life – we do get a lot of his prickly bitterness (his surviving correspondence is a never ending stream of bitching about money and barely a mention of art theory, a sign if ever I saw one that great artist’s need to balance the books like the rest of us). Heston’s grandness may seem at time like he is as carved out of marble as the subject’s work (after all this is the actor cast as Moses based on his physical similarity to Michelangelo’s carving), but he does convince.

Rex Harrison has the juicier part as the war-like Pope, the Prince of both the Church and Realpolitik. Harrison famously declined to grow the beard that Julius was famed for, but he captures the brusque playfulness of this man who remodelled the Papacy as a political force. His scenes carry energy and wit in a way most of the rest of the film lacks.

Overall though the film, I am well aware, is (ironically) as slow as watching paint dry. But yet, it pushes my buttons and I rather like it. Again, it’s probably a bias coming into it. And I forgive it a lot for a beautifully judged and played scene where Julius and Michelangelo study the creation fresco and its meanings for faith. It’s wonderfully written and played and carries a profound spiritual intellect. This is when the film comes to life - it's gives serious space to proper discussions on questions of art and faith, which is often rewarding.

Sure, it sits within a film that is often dry and old-fashioned. But when it zeroes in on the painting itself: how it came about, its inspiration and its meaning – it carries a real impact. It’s a flawed film: but I find myself with a very soft spot for it.